At the "Oklahoma: The New Energy Frontier" conference last week at Midwest City's Reed Center, Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Jeff Cloud identified himself as the "nuclear guy" of Oklahoma energy.
"I'm kind of developing into being the nuclear guy. That pretty much came about by nobody else talking about it," Cloud said.
But people in the state are starting to get vocal. The good news, Cloud said, is that nuclear power is "clean, efficient, and it's safe." He recounted how many of Oklahoma's surrounding states have nuclear plants, and showed a map of how all have applied for additional reactors.
"Why are they wanting more?" he asked.
The bad news? It's going to take a lot to build one " perhaps more than the budget for the entire state of Oklahoma. It may be so expensive that probably all the state's electric companies together can't afford it.
"It costs anywhere up to $6 billion to build a nuclear power plant," Cloud told the assembly. "It's very expensive."
Opponents in the anti-nuclear movement say that's not all.
Black Fox Nuclear Power Plant is always the centerpiece to any discussion about Oklahoma nuclear power.
Planned by the Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO) in 1973 near Inola, about 15 miles east of Tulsa, the plant faced a ferocious opposition and nine years of protests and legal challenges. During one protest, in June 1979, 500 people were arrested after scrambling over a fence.
In the end, PSO scrapped plans for Black Fox in 1982, making it the only nuclear plant to be abandoned after construction had already started. No more planned nuclear plants were announced.
And so it has remained for more than 25 years. The struggle gave rise to a folk hero of the anti-nuke movement, Carrie Barefoot Dickerson, a Claremore woman who led the fight locally against the plant. In her autobiography, "Aunt Carrie's War Against Black Fox Nuclear Power Plant," Dickerson said, although it was the danger of nuclear power that motivated her and many others against the plant, in the end, it was the cost that really killed the project.
"Of course, I had not known that inflation would become our ally, but I had said "¦ we would prove Black Fox too expensive for people to buy the electricity," she wrote. "And that is exactly how Black Fox was stopped!"
Lobbyist Bud Scott, president for Oklahoma Progress Government Relations, a group opposed to nuclear power, said cost might be the main objection to the plants right now.
"Generally, the lowest cost is $6 billion," Scott said. "We are just talking about construction and permitting. Does that include security? Does that include waste disposal? Probably not. Transmission lines will have to be upgraded. We are talking about a million dollars a mile, maybe higher. On bills that are already getting high enough, how much more do the ratepayers want to spend?"
Scott said the waste issue, however, remains the gravest consequence in nuclear power. Spent rods contain radioactive isotopes, some which can remain hazardous longer than humans have been on Earth. One of these long-lived products of nuclear fission is Iodine-129, which has a half-life of 15.7 million years. It is easily absorbed by the thyroid and can cause cancers.
"We probably haven't studied it long enough to know all the long-term implications," Scott said. "We have not figured out a way to safely store the nuclear waste. We are talking four times the life cycle of the human race. No one wants this in their backyard."
Bob Rounsavell, a spokesman for the Carrie Dickerson Foundation, a grassroots group organized to follow in their namesake's footsteps, said proposals for a repository for such wastes can't begin to address such an issue. One such proposed spot that has now been scrapped, the Yucca Mountain Repository, faced strong opposition in both the area surrounding the site and among states in between, afraid of such waste even passing through on its way to oblivion.
Even a supposed stable disposal site like Yucca may not be enough when the rise and fall of oceans covering the continent may come and go before the material is no longer a problem. And, Rounsavell said, there is already a lot of it to dispose.
"We have no way of safely disposing of it," he said. "If we were to open up Yucca Mountain tomorrow, we have enough spent fuel rods to almost fill it to capacity."
Cloud admits that the waste is a problem. Current proposals can mean on-site storage where spent fuel and other toxic byproducts are usually put into stainless steel containers and submerged in water or buried. Sometimes it is baked into a stable form of glass so it does not erode.
Nevertheless, Cloud said nuclear power is the only 24/7 form of power generation that does not emit carbon into the atmosphere to contribute to global warming " the other big environmental challenge today.
"It's the only one that's clean, and none of them are as efficient and reliable. It has a lot of advantages, but with those advantages come costs," he said.
The issue, Cloud said, is the state's rising needs for more energy. Wind power can supplement, but won't cut it for constant, reliable power.
Because it can be brought online quickly, natural gas electricity is good for "peak" generation as well as "base-load" generation, which is meeting the minimum power requirements for consumers. Base-load stands for electricity needs that never turn off, like traffic lights and burglar alarms. Cloud said Oklahoma has large reserves of natural gas, and purchasing it here puts money into the state's economy. However, natural gas is also subject to price volatility and can rise precipitously, like gasoline. Worse, he said, even though it's relatively clean, it emits carbon, cited as contributing to global warming.
Coal, Cloud said, is a stable and cheap source for power. Coal-fired plants are also used for base-load generation. Still, coal is dirty, and among the pollutants is mercury. Recently, a state Department of Environmental Quality report stated that Southeast Oklahoma lakes are so contaminated with mercury that eating fish from them should be limited for certain people to only twice a month. Mercury in Southeastern Oklahoma is attributed to coming from coal-fired plants, among other sources.
"As we move forward, we do have existing coal plants in this state," Cloud said. "We don't know what's coming from the federal government as far as restrictions and constraints. What are we going to do? Back them off and mothball them? With increasing need for power in this state, I think nuclear fits a role, a diversified position, that helps our state immeasurably."
Currently, at least three bills regarding nuclear power are before the state Legislature. House Speaker Chris Benge said he hopes the legislation will at least open public discussion to the possibility of nuclear power.
"What it comes down to is, if you are going to have a growing economy, you are going to have to secure your energy needs," Benge said. "In that context, we have to discuss all options for energy." "Ben Fenwick